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Secrets of Provence

The Marquis de Sade is one of the few men in history whose names have spawned adjectives: Machiavelli, Plato, and Masoch are others who come readily to mind. The books of this 18th-century debauchee have received more mixed reviews than any other writer's; he has been called "the freest spirit who ever was," "a professor emeritus of crime," "the most lucid hero in the history of thought," an "abominable assemblage of all crimes and obscenities."

And although his physique remains nebulous we know only that he had blond hair and a round, winsome face and stood approximately five feet two Donatien-Alphonse-François, Marquis de Sade, is one of those public figures whose geographical origins are easily traceable. His most cherished landscapes, his emotional terrain, lie in the Vaucluse, the ravishing region of Provence east and north of Avignon. There, for centuries, his ancestors had exercised their seigneurial rights with legendary hubris, seldom letting anyone forget that they belonged to Provence's most exalted aristocracy and were among its largest landowners.

To his credit (and he had few redeeming graces), the Marquis was as candid about his inherited hauteur as he was about his unleashed libido. "Haughty, despotic, and choleric," he described himself, "imperious…extreme in all things, with a disturbance in the moral imagination unlike any the world has ever known.…Kill me or take me as I am, because I will not change."

Like most men known primarily as sexual ogres, Sade has inspired so many lurid tales that the basic facts of his life tend to be obscured. He was born in Paris in 1740 at the home of the Condés, his mother's distant cousins and princes of the royal blood. (Sade's arrogance was heightened by his remote kinship with the French crown.) He spent six childhood years with relatives in Provence, first with his paternal grandmother in Avignon, in the beautiful mansion that now serves as the Musée Calvet, and later in the nearby castle of Saumane with his uncle the Abbé de Sade, a cleric and scholar of notorious dissipation, a trait shared by the Marquis's own wastrel father. At 22, the penurious young dandy was forced by his family to marry a plain, prim young woman of the wealthy Paris bourgeoisie, Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil. She worshiped him for the next quarter-century of their marriage, and the couple had three children.

Sade's Paris years were tainted by a few arrests caused by his orgies, which included such activities as whipping women. Fleeing from his disgraces, the 31-year-old Sade moved with his family to his château at Lacoste, his favorite among the several Provençal estates he had inherited. It is at Lacoste that any meditation on the Marquis de Sade must begin.

Trace your way across a road map some 25 miles east of Avignonand roughly 10 minutes by car from Ménerbes, the setting of Peter Mayle's Provence seriesand you will find the village of Lacoste, surmounted by the Marquis's ancestral castle. Far less exploited than nearby tourist meccas such as Gordes or Roussillon, Lacoste has changed little since Sade's time: even its population, approximately 400, is about the same. Its rocky terrain has always made it poorer than neighboring settlements; here the economy is based on stonemasonry rather than farming. The only commercial establishments in this austere, steep-pathed pinnacle of pale golden stone are a tiny bakery, a stamp-size newspaper-and-tobacco store, and a few quiet cafés, of which the most popular is called the Café de Sade. The château itself, whose foundations date from the ninth century, once served as a stronghold against Saracen invaders. It is set on a rocky two-acre plateau that dominates the cliffside village like a hovering eagle. Sacked in 1792 during the revolutionary era, and plundered repeatedly into this century, the castle retains only its moat, sections of its walls and ramparts, and a few half-demolished rooms. From a distance the structure evokes the toothless face of a ravaged colossus, and the climb to it can be arduous ("accès pénible," as French guidebooks put it). But the nearly 360-degree views are as breathtaking as those from any other summit in Provence. Looking down and east from Sade's castle in the glorious month of April, you will see, for miles on end, groves of pink and white cherry trees, budding vineyards interspersed with crimson poppies, and violet Judas trees. A few miles beyond, the handsome village of Bonnieux tumbles down its hillock toward the Lubéron range, whose slopes yield some of the Vaucluse's loveliest wines. To the north, majestic forests of spruce and oak, more hilltop hamlets, and orchards redolent with rosemary, thyme, and lavender stretch toward the white-capped peaks of the Ventoux range.

The shell of Sade's castle, ever so tauntingly sinister, offers fresh insights into his enigmatic personality and his work, for these ruins retain the savage, feudal aura that sparked the Marquis's muse. Along with his family domain at Saumane, the far more forbidding 12th-century château where the young Marquis spent part of his childhood, Lacoste may have helped to inspire the settings of Sade's most famous novels: Justine, Juliette, and that monumental catalogue of sexual perversions The 120 Days of Sodom. These gothic narratives of persecuted damsels, bloodthirsty monks, and gruesomely debauched noblemen are most often set in places strikingly similar to the ancestral estates where Sade lived during his Provençal yearslandscapes filled with isolated fortresses, dizzying precipices, and impassable moats. In the archaic vistas of Lacoste, Sade could retain that illusion of anarchic autonomy he bestowed on his fictional characters, feel like the feudal suzerain whose most deviant whims could remain unpunished. Yet a close study of Sade's life at Lacoste reveals a surprising, quieter aspect of his characterhis strong ties to family. Abhorring the hypocritical fawning of court life, disdaining most of his aristocratic peers (his delusions of grandeur made him feel vastly superior), Sade was a rather domestic man. For one thing, his marriage was outstandingly harmonious. His wife, the sturdy, homespun Marquise, hated Parisian society as violently as her husband did, and shared his passion for Lacoste. She calmly endured his debauches, being so enamored of the Marquis that she even abetted some of his deviant practices. Though Sade was hardly even-tempered, part of the time their devotion was mutual. In his letters from jail the Marquis called his wife "ambrosia of Olympus," "miracle of nature," "light of my life," "dove of Venus," while the Marquise most frequently addressed him as "my good little boy."

So, during his years in Provence, when not partying with strumpets, the Marquis felt far more at ease with his doting spouse and a few Provençal cronies than with urban high society. He hobnobbed with his doctor, who lived in the village of Bonnieux, a 15-minute canter from Lacoste, and with his lawyer in the nearby city of Apt, the site of one of Provence's most colorful weekly markets. Despite his virulent atheism, he enjoyed discussing theology with local priests, particularly the vicar of the lovely little village of Oppède, just beyond Ménerbes.

But above all Sade loved to tend his estate, having personally planned and supervised its remodeling, down to its decoration and its landscaping. "I wish to enjoy the fruits of the garden next summer, and this will not happen if you neglect to follow my directions concerning the plantings"; thus he scolded his business agent in Provence shortly before he moved there in 1771. "Garden, farmyard, cheeses, firewood, etc.get all that moving."

So, when one visits this barren ruin today, one must imagine it the way Sade had renovated it by the 1770's: a 45-room residence staffed by some 20 domestics, filled with cozily upholstered sofas and bergères, replete with creature comforts such as card tables, copper water heaters, a bathtub, andthe 1778 inventory is specificmore than a dozen portable toilets and bidets. The walls were hung with tapestries depicting popular 18th-century themes: the death of Alexander the Great, the story of Mary Magdalene. Sade was an avid reader and scholar, and, though he remained deeply in debt throughout his life, his library included all the pornographic best-sellers of the time, and most of the classic writersVirgil, Pascal, Cervantes, Montesquieu, Diderot. Sade also lavished much expense on the "park" he designed for the northern end of his estate, with its labyrinth of evergreens copied from the black-and-white design of the floor in Chartres cathedral.
Another of Sade's indulgences at Lacoste was his passion for the theater. Amateur dramatics had been the rage since the late 17th century; almost every gentleman of substance in France had a theater on his estate (Sade himself had been stagestruck since adolescence). One of the first amenities he added to Lacoste was a 60-seat salle de spectacles. In 1771 he hired 12 second-rate but thoroughly professional actors and actresses and inaugurated a repertory theater season that shuttled between Lacoste and another of his family domains, the Château de Mazan, in the town of that name. The energy involved in these voyages is mind-boggling: Mazan, which adjoins the historic city of Carpentras, lies some 28 miles northwest of Lacoste, even now a 50-minute drive. The trip must have taken the entourage at least 12 hours by muleback or horse-drawn coach.

Once arrived in Mazan with his retinue of family, servants, and actors, Sade had barely two or three days to mount a brand-new production. While preparing to take a leading role in each play, he had to rehearse his actors, attend to sets and lighting, and, being always nearly broke, approach creditors to find additional funds for his extravaganzas. Then he would head back to Lacoste. As we follow Sade's footsteps on this demented project, we pass through some of the most gorgeous landscapes of the Vaucluse.

Sade's route from Lacoste to Mazan is easily traced, because few stretches of flat valley lie between the two towns. His cortege would have headed to the little river, the Calavon, that now runs parallel to Route N-100. The party might have crossed the stream on Pont Julien, a beautifully preserved Roman bridge from the third century b.c. that is still used today, and then turned northwest toward L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Called "the Venice of Provence," this gracious, airy city is crisscrossed by tributaries of the Sorgue River, which originate a few miles away in the resurgent spring of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. (The Sorgue today offers some of the best trout fishing in France.) For centuries "Isle" throve on the weaving, dyeing, and oil-pressing industries empowered by the water-driven wheels that still adorn its beautiful canals. Since it was the market town for surrounding communities, the young Marquis must have visited L'Isle several times a month while living with his uncle the Abbé de Sade at the Château de Saumane, just three miles outside of town.

The romantic hilltop settlement of Saumane-de-Vaucluse, where the Abbé de Sade could have offered refreshments to the Marquis's cavalcade, is crowned by yet another crenellated feudal fortress, which had belonged to the Sades since the 15th century. It was given to them by one of the Avignon popes as a reward for their services. (For the five centuries preceding the Revolution


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